Everything You Need to Know About Counting Ballot VotesIf you’ve ever volunteered been hand-selected to be a teller at an annual meeting or convention, you know there’s that brief moment of panic when you hope you know what you’re doing and hope you haven’t just screwed up an election or other important vote.

Keeping that panic moment brief means knowing the basics about how to count ballot votes.  Here’s a guide.

Start by Determining the Total Number of Votes Cast

Determining the total number of votes cast is important because that number becomes your baseline for calculating the number of votes needed for a majority.

The following count as “votes cast”:

  • ballots indicating a choice for an eligible candidate or option
  • illegal ballots

The following do not count as “votes cast”:

  • blank ballots
  • ballots that don’t indicate a preference
  • ballots cast by persons not entitled to vote

Calculate the Number Needed for a Majority

Once your teller team knows the total number of votes cast, divide that number in half to determine the number needed for a majority. A majority is more than half.

One special note: On a ballot where several offices are listed – e.g., president, vice president, treasurer, secretary – you need to calculate the votes cast and number needed for a majority for each office. A multi-office ballot isn’t a one-size-fits-all operation where you just count the total number of ballots and call it a day.

The reason for the separate calculations? Some members may have voted for some, but not all, of the offices. And a ballot that includes a vote for president and vice president, but for no other offices, is counted in the number of votes cast for those two offices, but is counted as blank (i.e., an abstention) for the others. And on the flip side, a ballot that’s illegal as to one selection isn’t illegal as to all.

Determine if a Questionable Vote Affects the Result

Questionable votes are votes that are semi-intelligible, but not entirely clear. In other words, they can’t be put in the “I-have-absolutely-no-idea-who-or-what-this-person-was-trying-to-vote-for” illegal vote category. But they also can’t be placed clearly in the stack for one candidate or choice.

Say, for example, both Bonnie Smith and Bobbie Smith are members of your organization. It is entirely feasible that someone could vote for one of these individuals as a write-in but not write the name legibly enough for tellers to determine which person is being voted for.

Or, maybe you have Mr. Can’t-Make-Up-His-Mind in your group. His ballot is the one that has an X next to all three people running for president, but then some of the Xs are scribbled through . . . sort of . . . and you’re just not sure who he really meant to vote for in the end.

When it comes to questionable ballots like these, you need to determine whether the vote would affect the result.

  • If you were stake-your-life-on-it sure that the ballot said “Bobbie Smith,” would Bobbie Smith win or lose? If the vote doesn’t make a difference as to the election or vote outcome, stick the vote in the illegal vote stack.
  • If it could make a difference, parliamentary procedure states that you are to immediately take the issue to the assembly and ask them to decide whether that beautiful cursive says “Bobbie” or “Bonnie.”

Strap on your decisiveness hat. Get ready to total carefully. And count ‘em up.

How to Decide If a Ballot Vote is LegalIf you’re a teller charged with counting ballots, we all hope that you can, at a minimum, . . . count. But let’s be clear – we also hope you know a few other very important details about balloting too – like how to determine which votes are legal and which are not.

Parliamentary procedure to the rescue.

Why Do We Care Whether a Vote is Legal?

First things first. Is vote legality even significant? Well, aside from arguments of principle, let’s just keep it practical for the very nice people who have agreed to be tellers at your convention: We care whether votes are legal because we need to know how to calculate the total votes needed for a majority.

In case I just lost you, here’s an example. Tammy Top-Notch Teller empties the ballot box and finds 12 ballots for the office of treasurer. Ten of the votes are legal, and two are not. If Tammy Top-Notch Teller is confused about what to do with illegal votes, she might:

(a) Throw the ballots with illegal votes in the trash, report that there are 10 total votes cast, and tell everyone that six is the magic number (majority) needed to win the spot of treasurer.

(b) Panic and announce that the entire election has to be redone because there were illegal votes!!

(c) Decide that legal or not, all votes should be counted because inclusiveness is what really matters in the world today.

(d) Conclude that she’s really not top-notch after all and decide to hang out at the refreshments table instead.

If you’re thinking that none of the above options is the best approach, you are a star teller in the making. Seriously, though, how in the world do you know if a vote is legal, and what do you do if you find an illegal vote in your stack of ballots?

Types of Illegal Votes

First, you need to be able to confidently put a vote in the legal or illegal category. Here’s a simple list of the types of votes that are not legal:

  • Unintelligible Votes – If you hands down cannot tell who or what the vote is for, it gets put in the illegal stack.

But be careful, because misspellings that you can decipher do not count as unintelligible. If someone writes in John Willie-Wonka as John Willy-Wacca, chances are you know which guy they meant to vote for.

And, if the vote is questionable but not completely unintelligible – like it might be for Bobbie but it could maybe be for Bonnie – there’s a special protocol to follow. That’s a post for another day.

  • Votes for Ineligible Candidates – I know you think Elton John is the best ever. But if he’s not a member of your organization, he just can’t be president. Votes cast for him are illegal. So sorry.
  • Votes for Too Many Candidates – Fran Friends-with-Everyone can only mark one choice for VP. If she puts an X next to every VP candidate, her VP vote is illegal.
  • Ballots Folded Together – If you find two ballots folded together and both marked for Trickster Tom, follow your gut and put those ballots in the illegal stack. They count as one illegal vote. Note, though, that both ballots have to be filled out for them to get the illegal label. If one is blank, Trickster Tom is in the clear and gets one vote.

What to Do With Illegal Votes

Once you have two stacks – legal votes and illegal votes – there’s an easy rule about what to do with the illegal ones: Count them in the total number of votes cast, but do not count them toward any specific choice. So in the example above, Tammy Top-Notch Teller should have calculated the number needed for a majority from 12, not 10. The two illegal votes get counted in the total number of votes cast—they just don’t get credited to any one person’s efforts to become treasurer.

One final note: Votes cast by people not entitled to vote aren’t counted at all. So yes, that means if Elton John shows up and votes, it doesn’t get counted, unless he is a member. Even if he is the best ever.

A Beginner’s Guide for Tellers: How to Collect Ballots and Count VotesIf you’ve been asked to be a teller for a meeting, you have an important job. Yes, your job includes collecting ballots and counting votes. But really, your No. 1 job is to instill confidence in the membership—confidence that the vote was fair, and that the results are accurate. Hopefully, you’ve been hand selected because the people in charge think you’ll be a rock star teller. Here’s what you need to do to live up to that title.

Make a Plan for Collecting Ballots

Collecting ballots is simple if you remember that you have three big goals: (1) Avoid mayhem. (2) Make sure only members vote. And (3) make sure no member votes more than once unless he’s holding a proxy for another member. To accomplish these goals, you have to make a plan for how to collect the ballots. Here are some choices:

  • If only members are present, or if you have a members-only section, one teller can pass a ballot box while another teller watches to make sure each member only votes once.
  • If members and non-members are present in the same space, members can leave their seats and go to a ballot box where at least two tellers watch to make sure that only members are voting and that they are only voting once.

Once you’ve decided on a plan, tell the chair before the meeting so that she can instruct the members about what to do once they’ve filled out their ballot.

Count the Ballots in a Private Room

Some groups require ballots to be counted in the presence of the group. If not, stake out a quiet, private place ahead of the meeting and make sure it’s reserved for you to use for counting ballots. (Hint: The lobbies outside the convention hall or staff headquarters do not usually fit the definition of a quiet, private place.)

Have a Method for Counting Votes

Let’s get one thing straight: Counting votes does not mean you dump the ballot box out on the table, let every teller grab a few ballots and count ‘em up, and then huddle when you’re done to total.

Ideally, counting ballot votes looks like this: 

  1. Empty the contents of the ballot box onto a table.
  2. Have two tellers check the ballot box to make sure it is completely empty.
  3. Divide tellers into pairs that can work together.
  4. Divide ballots into piles (randomly—no special sorting) for each pair of tellers.
  5. Have one teller in each pair unfold the ballots in his pile while the other teller in that pair watches for two ballots folded/stuck together.
  6. Once all ballots are unfolded, regroup tellers into groups of three: a reading teller, a writing teller, and a watching teller.
  7. The reading teller in each group says out loud the contents of each ballot while the watching teller observes to make sure the ballot is accurately read.
  8. During this reading, questionable ballots (e.g., two folded together, illegible ballots, etc.) are set aside for review.
  9. When the reading teller says the contents of the ballot, the writing teller makes a tally on a blank sheet of paper, and the watching teller observes to make sure the tally mark goes next to the right person/choice.
  10. When all the ballots in a pile are counted, the reading and writing teller work together to total the votes tallied on that recording sheet while the watching teller checks their math.
  11. Questionable ballots are reviewed by the group of tellers. If necessary, the group sets them aside for consideration by the entire assembly.
  12. Totals from all recording sheets are tallied, entered on the tellers’ report, and double-checked.

You, as a teller, have a big job. Your careful work gives your whole organization confidence that votes are being handled responsibly according to parliamentary procedure. Organize your team, your stuff and your process, and do this thing.

5 Characteristics of a Rock Star TellerFirst things first: What’s a teller? In the world of parliamentary procedure, a teller is a person who helps to pass out, collect, and count ballots, and a head teller reports the results of a vote to the chair for announcement.

Choosing tellers for a meeting usually goes like this:

Chairman Always-On-the-Ball: [Five minutes before meeting, thinking to himself] Oh, wait. We need tellers to count the votes for the election. Oops. Forgot about that. Let’s see . . . Jim doesn’t look busy. He’d probably be good. And [scanning room] . . . Jenny. She seems super organized.

“Hey . . . Jim and Jenny, can y’all be tellers for today’s election? Just show people where to put their ballots and then count the ballots once we’re done voting. Sound good? Awesome! You’re the best! Feel free to pick some other warm bodies to help out, okay?”

Question: Chairman Always-On-the-Ball is (a) quick on his feet and troubleshooter extraordinaire; (b) clearly knowledgeable about teller responsibilities; or (c) primed for balloting mayhem. If you picked c, you win.

Maybe the above scenario seems like no big deal. Tellers are a dime a dozen, right? No. Does it really make that much of a difference? Yes. A thousand times, yes.

Tellers may seem expendable, but when the results of an election or other balloted vote are close, the last – and I mean, the very last, thing you want is to have a balloting process that members can question. What you want to know – in a stake-your-life-on-it sort of way – is that every vote was counted properly, and that every vote counted was in fact a legal vote. And let me tell you, that ain’t happenin’ unless you have rock star tellers.

Here’s what a rock star teller looks like:

Rock star tellers can count.

This one is simple. Pick tellers because of intelligence and discernment. Yes, I’ve met Ms. Would-Do-Anything-For-Anyone, and she’s the best. But unless she’s also great with math, she’s probably better off handing out programs.

Rock star tellers are dependable.

Another simple one. Pick the guy that’s going to do this as if his life depends on it, not the dude that’s going to get bored halfway through and find someone to take his place while he checks out the afternoon dessert spread the hotel just put out.

Rock star tellers are trusted.

Shady, slightly dishonest people need not apply. The best tellers are people who have a solid reputation as unquestionably trustworthy. This person is going to require everyone who casts a ballot to show proper credentials, whether they’re his BFF or not. And once the polls are closed, he’s going to say “no” to the woman who got stuck at the silent auction on her way to the ballot box and missed the voting cut-off. Bottom line: The membership’s confidence in tellers should be super high.

Rock star tellers don’t have a personal stake in the outcome.

Avoid picking people who have a personal interest in the outcome. So, don’t pick tellers who are candidates in the election. Or a candidate’s spouse. Or her children. Again – tellers need to create confidence, not suspicion.

Rock star tellers are invested in the vote outcome.

I know this sounds like a contradiction to the previous point. But while you don’t want tellers with a conflict of interest, you actually do want tellers who are personally invested in the group’s business. What this means is that you can and may want to include tellers who are publically supportive of a candidate. But if you go this route, make sure you include someone like that for every candidate, not just one candidate. Involving tellers from every faction of the vote can save you from accusations of partisan results.

And a final note: Remind the tellers to vote. Rock star tellers aren’t prohibited from voting just because they’re tellers.

If by now you’re thinking, “Good grief, it’s a heap of work to pick out tellers,” then I’ve done my job. Selecting top-notch tellers takes forethought. But trust me, you’ll have no regrets about careful teller choices if the results of your election or vote are close or contested.

How to Challenge the Announced Result of a Voice Vote“The ‘ayes’ have it, and the motion is adopted.” Have you ever heard these words announced after a voice vote in a meeting and thought, “Um, no. Pretty sure that motion didn’t have enough ‘yes’ votes to pass”? If so, you’re not alone. Disagreement with the chair’s call on the results of a voice vote is pretty common. The problem is that most people don’t know what to do about it. Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Step 1: Challenge the announced results immediately.

Rule #1 is to act fast. If you think the chair got it wrong, speak up, and do it now. Let’s get technical as to timing:

You can challenge results of a voice vote starting immediately after the negative votes are cast and until immediately after the chair announces the results of the vote.

What does “immediately” mean? It means before any more discussion or business occurs. So, if you think the negative votes on whether to have that bake sale fundraiser were louder and the chair said the motion passed anyway, don’t even give people a second to think about what kind of brownies they’re going to bake. Stand up and challenge the announced results immediately. If the group moves on to discuss how great the sale is going to be and what to do with the money raised, you’ve lost your opportunity.

Step 2: Say the word “division.”

Now, you may be thinking, “How in the world do I get to a microphone fast enough to challenge the vote before the group moves on?” And, “What will I say when I get there?”

Here are two key points you need to know:

  1. All that you have to say is “division.” This is the magic word. In parliamentary procedure land, when a vote is retaken, it is called a “division of the assembly,” meaning the assembly will be divided up according to its respective “yes” and “no” votes. So, someone demanding that kind of accounting is calling for a division to double-check the result. “Division” is all you have say to get the ball rolling. (Best one-word game-changer ever.)
  2. You don’t have to be at a microphone, or even be recognized to challenge the results of a vote as announced. That’s right – this is one of those few times that Robert’s Rules lets you forget all that “don’t speak unless you raise your hand and are recognized” stuff. You can just simply yell out, “division.” Ok . . . maybe “yell” is too strong a word. But I do recommend that you say it good and loud enough for everyone to hear.

Once any member says “division,” the chair is required to retake the vote by asking members to stand and vote, not just speak “yes” or “no.”

Step 3: Stop while you’re ahead.

All right, I’m guessing you feel pretty empowered by this point. But, before you go to your next meeting and start yelling “division” at every turn, there’s a couple points you need to know:

  1. Repeatedly yelling “division” on a whim might make people stare. Just sayin’. Seriously though, Robert’s Rules does put a moratorium on using “division” simply to slow things down and irritate everyone. Rule of thumb: If the vote result is clear and everyone knows it, pipe down.
  2. Saying “division” gets you the right to have a rising/standing vote taken. It doesn’t get you the right to have the vote explicitly counted. That’s a whole different kind of complicated and best explained in another post.

To sum it up, don’t be afraid to challenge the chair. Leaders aren’t perfect, the result of a voice vote can be vague, and accountability is a great thing.

How to Take a Vote OnlineIn today’s world, there’s one main reason for using online voting: convenience. (Who wouldn’t want to vote from their living room instead of traipsing across town or across the country?) Plus, online voting increases the likelihood of member participation in a vote, and it may remove some of the stress that often comes with taking a consequential vote in a large group.

I know you’re thinking, let’s do this already. But before you press ahead, let’s talk a little about parliamentary procedure and legality.

Step 1: Figure out what laws apply.

Identify the state laws that govern your organization’s meetings. Chat with your legal counsel or check your articles of incorporation to determine your group’s legal status and which state’s laws apply. Then search in that state’s laws for statutes applicable to your kind of group.

Step 2: Find out what the law says about taking actions outside of a meeting.

This is the basic idea of online voting—you’re not doing it in a meeting. So look in the “Meetings” section of the state statutes (there might be a subsection titled, “Action without a Meeting”). Plan B is to check the “Voting” section, which may describe how to take a vote without a meeting, implying that doing so is fine.  Here’s a few other tips:

  • Make sure you’re referencing the statutory sections that apply to membership meetings, not board of directors’ meetings—two different things.
  • If there’s silence on the issue, the law may be implying “no online voting.” But check to see if the law lets you include language in your bylaws or adopt other rules that would allow you to use online voting anyway.
  • If the law allows action outside of a meeting only if everyone votes, you basically can’t vote online since getting every last member to vote is pretty much impossible.
  • Mail balloting is not the same as online voting.

Step 3: Check your bylaws.

If Robert’s Rules is your parliamentary authority, then you need bylaws that authorize voting outside of a meeting. Parliamentary procedure likes people to be physically present for discussion and a vote, so if you want to let absent people vote, you have to say so explicitly in your bylaws.

Step 4: Make a plan!

If online voting is an option, make sure you’ve got all the details well-timed and organized before you jump in. Find a credible vendor who can ensure confidentiality and controlled access to voting programs. There’s nothing worse than generating negativity about a new idea because it’s poorly executed. (If you need to, be willing to just wait till next year. Seriously.)

4 Things Most People Get Wrong about AbstentionsRaise your hand if you’ve ever heard or said these words:

  • “All those in favor, say ‘aye.’”
  • “All those opposed, say ‘no.’”
  • “Any abstentions?”

And just keep your hand up there if that last question makes you think, “What in the world is an abstention? And why in the world is the chair asking for them?” Let me try to explain.

First, in parliamentary procedure land, an “abstention” is simply a voter’s decision not to vote. It’s when a motion comes up for a vote, and (1) you don’t want anyone to know what you think about that issue, (2) you disagree with the guy next to you but don’t want him to know, (3) you aren’t sure what you think, (4) you lost track of business a while back and don’t know what the vote is about, or (5) you totally miss that a vote is happening because you’re thinking about golf. So you just don’t vote.

Now hopefully at this point you’re asking, “If an abstention is a decision not to vote, why ask the people who aren’t voting to announce that fact to everyone?” Good question. Asking vote-abstainers to identify themselves is just one of several points of confusion people have about how abstentions work.

1. Always Ask for Abstentions

No. As I’ve talked about before, per Robert’s Rules, abstentions should not be called for, counted, or recorded. Why? Because no member can be required to vote, so when you ask people to tell whether they voted, you’re asking them to make a record of their decision to not go on record.

2. Never Ask for Abstentions

No. Point one aside, there are two circumstances when you should ask people who are abstaining to identify themselves. (1) You’re part of a public body (elected/appointed officials) and have a responsibility to make a record of your participation on votes for the benefit of constituents. Or (2), you’re counting the vote, and those voting are fewer than the number required for a quorum. You wouldn’t want members to question whether a quorum was present for that vote, and so recording the number of abstentions clarifies that you had a quorum. Totally fair.

3. Abstentions Should Be Counted as Votes “Cast”

Wrong. The issue here is whether to count abstentions as votes cast when you’re trying to determine whether you have a majority. In other words, if you’re on a board of 12, all of whom are present, and 10 people vote and two abstain, do you need six yes votes to win or seven? You need six according to the default definition of majority, which is “those present and voting.” So yet another reason not to ask for abstentions. They generally have no effect on the vote anyway. But once in a while they do. See my next point.

4. Abstentions Never Affect the Vote Result

Wrong again. Abstentions affect the vote result if your governing documents define majority differently – as the number of individuals present or the number of total members. Under either of these definitions, using the example above, you would need seven votes to win. In this case, even though an abstention is still not counted as a vote cast, it effectively acts as a “no” vote because the basis for a majority is a fixed number.

All those who now know a little more about abstentions, say “aye.”

Taking a vote seems easy enough. Just use the magic words, “All those in favor” . . . right? Technically, yes, but there’s more to it than that. And I know you don’t want to mess up an important vote with an avoidable mistake. Here are four errors I encounter frequently in vote-taking contexts. You’re going to have problems if you . . .

4 Ways to Screw Up a Vote1. Show Favoritism

If you’re really committed to playing fair as you lead, then learn the subtle ways that a presiding officer can communicate impartiality – a quality that should be top of mind for anyone leading a meeting. One easy tip is to use the same language when asking each “side” for their vote.

So, say this: “All those in favor, say ‘aye.’ All those opposed, say, ‘no.’”

And definitely avoid this other, all-too-common fallback: “All those in favor, say ‘aye.’ Anyone opposed?” The difference is small, I realize, but the tone and connotation of the words “anyone opposed” might make all the difference for someone that is reluctant to cast a negative vote, especially in a small group.

Another way to communicate equal treatment of all views, especially in a large group, is to make sure every person and/or delegation – yes, even that annoying individual or faction – has the information and material (think: ballots or key pads) needed to cast a vote. Silencing the minority to railroad a vote through is never advantageous long-term. You’re better off taking time to ensure the process is fair.

2. Ask for Abstentions

On this point, I’ll make it simple for you: Just don’t ask. Robert’s Rules says that abstentions should not be called for, counted, or recorded. And there’s a solid rationale here: No member can be forced to vote, so when you ask people to tell you that they didn’t vote – well, you’re basically asking them to go on record as not going on record.

There are a few exceptions here – like, if you’re part of a public body (elected or appointed officials), or if you’re concerned that someone might question whether a quorum was present based on the vote count recorded in the minutes. But the general rule applies in most situations: No need to ask for abstentions.

3. Keep the Precise Topic of the Vote a Mystery

Spoiler Alert: After the first five – okay, maybe ten – minutes of a meeting, most people aren’t paying attention. This means that by the time you start taking a vote, you need to make the topic of the vote really clear since many tuned out long ago.

There’s a simple way to avoid mystery and make the vote clear: Always repeat the motion in full right before the vote.

Here’s an example: “The motion on the floor is that we purchase a new computer and printer for the treasurer. All those in favor, say ‘aye.’ All those opposed, say, ‘no.’”

I know this seems like a small point, but taking time to make sure everyone is on the same page is always worth it.

4. Say the Words, “Same Sign” or “Nay”

It’s the parliamentarians’ favorite LOL moment. (Some of us do have a sense of humor!) Whenever we hear someone take a voice vote and use the words, “same sign,” we laugh inside about the illogic of this.

Think about it for a minute. Saying, “All those in favor say, ‘aye.’  All those opposed, ‘same sign,’” does not make sense because you’re asking the individuals voting no to say “yes” in order to communicate their opposition. Confusing and not cool. Best practice – be precise.

And finally, call me pretentious, but horses say, “nay.” People say, “no.” So when you’re taking a vote, for the love of humanity (not animals this time), just ask them to say, “no.”

A Quick Guide to Voting Terms (Plus PDF Download)Attend a meeting or read an organization’s rules, and you’re likely to encounter a variety of voting terms. Parliamentary procedure (e.g., the rules of Robert’s Rules and other parliamentary procedure guidebooks) helps us out with the voting process.

Though some concepts may seem familiar, even well-known terms like “majority” have nuanced meaning. Here’s a quick guide (and some bonus tips) to common voting terms whose definitions and usage may not always be readily apparent:

abstention

to not vote at all

Bonus Tip: Except in public bodies, a presiding officer should not ask members to identify whether they are abstaining from a vote.

ballot vote a written, secret vote on a slip of paper; allowed only when required by the bylaws or ordered by a majority vote
counted vote a method of vote verification whereby each vote is individually tallied; occurs on the chair’s initiative alone or via passage of a motion by majority vote; one member cannot demand it
division of assembly a method of vote verification demanded by one member, whereby an inconclusive voice vote or show of hands vote is retaken as a rising vote; the demand is made by calling out, “Division!”; not a method by which one member can demand a counted vote
general/unanimous consent

a vote taken informally on noncontroversial matters

Bonus Tip: To take a vote using this method, say, “If there is no objection, we will . . . .” If any member objects, simply put the motion to a more formal vote by saying, “All those in favor of . . . say, ‘aye.’ All those opposed, say, ‘no.’”

majority

more than half of the members in good standing that are both present and voting

Bonus Tip: This is the default definition of “majority” if used without qualification in an organization’s governing documents.

majority of a quorum more than half of the number of members needed for a quorum
majority of the entire membership more than half of all the members in good standing, regardless of whether they are present
majority of the members present more than half of the members in good standing that are present at a meeting
plurality the largest number of votes among three or more candidates or proposals; not necessarily a majority
proxy a “power of attorney” given by one member to another member to vote in his place
unanimous

every member present casts the same vote on a motion

Bonus Tip: This is the weakest type of vote because it allows one disagreeable member to control the entire group. Use judiciously.

vote by acclamation

a declaration by the chair that a member nominated for an office is elected; no vote is taken

Bonus Tip: Used only when only one person is nominated for an office and the bylaws do not require a ballot vote.